Welcome to our Christmas Celebration! And a special welcome to old friends returning and new friends here for the first time. It seems a long time since the first of our Christmas services: it was back in November when Year 7’s from Pittville school joined us for their Christmas Carol Service. Since then we seem to have had so many Christmas services! They’re the same carols, the same readings and the same story. And yet, somehow, there’s something fresh each time we come to them. A lot has happened over the last year since last we sang those carols, read those readings and told that story. We come to them as different people in a world that’s changed. One theme has emerged through all those services. It’s a theme of welcome. There was no room for Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem: but someone found them somewhere to stay. No one had time for the shepherds: yet they were welcomed with open arms as they came to see all that had happened in Bethlehem. The Magi came from lands far away, from a different culture, from a different religion, with a different language: yet as they presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh they too found a warmth of welcome. When Mary, Joseph and the Christ child fled the brutality of Herod they had a gruelling journey to make across a desert: but in Egypt they were welcomed and given refuge. Together with churches across the town we have joined Cheltenham Welcomes Refugees in giving a welcome to the Syrian families who have found refuge here in our town. It’s good to welcome everyone to our Christmas services … may that Christmas spirit of welcome shape the way we think, the way we talk and the way we act in response to the refugee crisis that’s not going to go away for a long time yet.
65 O come, all ye faithful
Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer
Reading: Luke 2:1-7
Lighting the Christmas Candle
Reading; John 1:1-5 and 14
72 Away in a manger
A welcome’s not just for Christmas!
There’s something about a baby that brings people together!
There was no room for them in the inn
But they were given a welcome nonetheless
The shepherds were outsiders
But they were welcomed into the stable
The wise men came from the East far away, a different language, a different culture, a different religion. But they were welcomed as they presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
There’s something about a baby that brings people together
But babies are very vulnerable. And Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus were up against it. They lived under a brutal regime and they had to flee. Their flight of fear took them across the fierce Sinai desert to a country far away with a different language, a different culture, a different religion.
But there’s something about a baby and they were given a welcome all the same.
Not until the brutality of Herod’s regime came to an end with his death were they able to return and even then they could not go back to Bethlehem for fear of reprisals and so they went back to Nazareth far off in the North where they were welcomed home and the child grew and became strong and was filled with wisdom and God’s blessing was on him.
There’s one image for Christmas that sticks in my mind this year. It’s a sculpture by Josefina de Vasconcellos, one of the great sculptors of the 20th century. Commissioned by a fiery, campaigning vicar of St Martin-in-the Fields, the church in Trafalgar Square, who himself had been a prisoner of war in 1958. It’s now in Cartmel Priory in the Lake District.
It captures a moment in the flight of Mary and Joseph and the Christ child.
It has a stark title.
They fled by night.
Joseph and Mary are sleeping. They are worn out. The child has woken and is looking around. Has something woken him up? Has something frightened him? Has he caught sight of the beauty of the dawn?
It’s an image that captures a moment in the Christmas story that this year speaks to our hearts.
It has been a year of divisions in our society, in our world. A year once again torn apart by war. Maybe the message of Christmas this year is that we pull barriers down and build bridges up and give a welcome to those in need.
We have been involved with other churches and others in the town in Cheltenham Welcomes Refugees. It was moving to join with people from other churches and indeed from other faith communities in a meeting in the university when we heard a woman from one of the five Syrian families welcomed into the town this year. She spoke of the warmth of welcome she had received.
There are practical things to do … and we have helped with practicalities.
There are political things to do. The scale of the refugee crisis demands a greater response from our country not least because of the involvement of our country in the catastrophic wars that have led to the refugee crisis.
Most importantly there’s a personal response we need to make. There’s a divisiveness in the air. A hostility towards ‘others’. A rising Xenophobia.
Someone made room for Mary and Joseph. The shepherds were welcomed, though they were the outcasts of their day. The Magi were welcomed too in spite of their different way of speaking, their different way of thinking, their different way of worshipping. And Egypt welcomed Mary and Joseph and the Christ child when they sought refuge in a far off country. The conversations each one of us has are important – they make a difference in the atmosphere. Will we make sure that a welcome’s not just for Christmas?
A Hy-Spirit song
Our Christmas Prayers
59 Hark the herald angels sing
Words of Blessing
Glory to God in the highest
And on earth peace
Peace in our hearts,
Peace in our homes
Peace in our communities
Peace in our world
Open our hearts that we may be Peace-makers
This Christmas and through the year to come.